In the recent case of Ball v Ball, three children failed in challenging their mother’s Will on the grounds that she lacked mental capacity and had been unduly influenced by her husband; their father.
There were 11 children in the Ball family in total. In 1991 three of them reported their father, Mr James Ball, to the police for indecently assaulting them whilst they were minors. As a result, Mr Ball was prosecuted, receiving a suspended prison sentence.
Mrs Barbara Ball was reportedly disgruntled when the allegations made by her children were publicised and she was of the opinion that they had been exaggerated. Mrs Ball therefore set about executing a Will which excluded the complainant children from any share of her Estate. The Estate was left to her eight remaining children and to one of Mrs Ball’s grandsons.
Mrs Ball died in 2013 without having made any further Will, leaving an Estate of £157,000. The three disinherited children challenged the Will advancing their claim under three heads at trial:
1. Lack of Capacity;
2. Undue Influence; and
3. Reasonable Provision pursuant to the Inheritance (Family and Dependants) Act 1975.
Lack of Capacity
Testamentary capacity is required when a Will is made, that is to ensure that the testator (the individual making the Will) fully comprehends the nature of the Will and the effect it will have. Challenging a Will on the basis of testamentary capacity is an extremely difficult claim, the starting point for which will be considering the deceased’s medical records, usually together with an expert report.
In this case the children accepted before trial that Mrs Ball had not been suffering from any physical or mental illness but instead based their argument on the view that Mr Ball had told Mrs Ball that he had not committed the above mentioned offences, which led to her disinheriting the children. The three children said that Mrs Ball’s mental state was impaired ‘in the sense that she was misled and…would not have reached those conclusions has she not been misled. Her state of mind was such that her capacity was lacking, because of the serious misapprehension under which she was labouring’.
However, there was evidence to suggest that Mr Ball had admitted to Mrs Ball that some of the allegations against him were true and the Court therefore held that Mrs Ball was not misled, which disposed of the lack of capacity argument.
In order to establish that the Will was invalid for undue influence, the children would have to prove that Mrs Ball made the Will as a result of force or fear (through actual or threatened injury); or fraud (after being misled by some pretence) or undue influence (where her freedom of choice was overcome with intolerable pressure). Such claims are inherently challenging, not least because the main witness has passed away.
The children based their argument on the sole fact Mrs Ball disinherited them as a result of their accusations against Mr Ball and she must therefore have been influenced by him. This was rejected by the Judge who found that ‘the evidence shows that her husband was not putting pressure on her, even though I have no doubt that she took his wishes…into account in deciding what to do’. In fact, the Judge found evidence Mrs Ball was the dominant partner in the marriage and that she ‘…was very strong minded, and it was very difficult to change her mind once it was made up’.
This strand of the children’s claim also failed. The Court considered that Mrs Ball was entitled to make the Will she had made and the fact others did not like her choice did not mean that she was unduly influenced.
Reasonable Provision pursuant to the Inheritance (Family and Dependants) Act 1975
The Court also rejected the claim for reasonable provision under the Inheritance (Family and Dependants) Act 1975. In order to succeed here, the children would first have to show that, objectively, the Will did not make reasonable financial provision for them in all the circumstances according to the relevant standard (there is a higher standard for spouses than for other applicants). Due to the fact that this is an objective question, the answer largely turns on financial evidence; it is not necessarily a question of whether the deceased acted reasonably or was morally right or wrong.
In this case the Court found nothing to suggest that Mrs Ball had not made reasonable financial provision for her children and no special circumstances to persuade the Court that Mrs Ball had failed to make reasonable financial provisions for her children’s maintenance. None of the children were considered to live “below the breadline” and they were no worse off than the remaining children and grandson who stood to inherit Mrs Ball’s Estate.
The Judge duly dismissed the claim from the three children and they were not entitled to any financial provision under their late mother’s Will.
Although this decision may come across as harsh, it serves as a useful reminder of the significant evidentiary hurdles in a claim against an Estate. The Court has no obligation to be sympathetic and it is clear the Court will assess each claim on a careful analysis of the facts and application of the relevant legal considerations.
The Wills & Probate Disputes Team at Leathes Prior recently represented a client in similar circumstances and, despite the reticent stance taken by the Court in Ball v Ball, the team secured a very favourable outcome for our client who received a significant sum on settlement. This therefore highlights that the outcome very much depends on the circumstances of each case and expert advice should always be sought to ensure proper representation.
If you wish to make a claim against an Estate, or need to defend such a claim, please do not hesitate to contact our Wills & Probate Disputes Team who can provide highly specialist advice.